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Updated: Nov 29, 2023

A new special provision £10m academy in Middlesbrough, which will accommodate over a hundred primary age pupils, finally opened its doors in September after getting the green light five years ago.

Developed on behalf of the Department for Education (DfE), the Discovery Special Academy will cater for pupils with severe learning difficulties, including those with a physical disability, multi-sensory impairments and complex medical problems.

The new special academy will operate as part of the Tees Valley Education multi-academy trust (MAT).

In line with the trust’s vision, Discovery is committed to meeting the needs of all its pupils through a fully inclusive and holistic approach based on a culture of close collaboration with education, health and care partners to fully integrate academic and therapeutic learning. The new academy has therefore been designed to enable personalised learning that meets the particular needs of each child.

The award-winning architects, Durham-based Howarth Litchfield, has been working on the project alongside main contractor Tilbury Douglas Construction. This is just one of several multi-discipline commissions in the specialist education sector that the practice has undertaken in the last few years. On this occasion, Howarth Litchfield’s role spanned lead designer, architectural and interior design services as well as BIM co-ordinator.


The key objectives for the scheme were to

  • Provide a high quality internal and external learning environment that would enable full integration of the academic, therapeutic and social curriculum for pupils

  • Design a school building that meets the functional requirements of a special provision school while responding to and respecting its immediate context

Located on a site of approximately 1.73 ha in the district of Acklam, Middlesbrough, the school was designated as a single storey building to cater for the needs of pupils, with all accommodation accessible at ground floor level.

The design is organised around an internal courtyard to encourage independence among children and provide a flexible, safe and welcoming environment. Classrooms are located around the courtyard with each having direct access to the external play area as the inter-relationship between indoor and outdoor learning/play is critical to the growth and development of each pupil.

The new school also benefits from its location within an established ecological setting close to the Middlesbrough Environment City and Nature’s World, in the south-western part of a green wedge called ‘Green Heart’.


Internally, the school has been designed with passive supervision in mind and ‘blind spots’ avoided where possible.

In line with DfE requirements, the building comprises an administration suite, Early Years and KS1 Teaching Suite, KS2 Teaching Suite, Therapy Suite, Main Hall and Services Suite. There are two reception and nine primary classrooms and in each teaching suite two small group rooms are provided to facilitate subject-specific learning for smaller groups and 1:1 teaching.

The internal and external spaces and approaches can be used safely, easily and with dignity by all, regardless of disability and impairment with entrances to the building, including the main entrance, convenient and welcoming with no disabling barriers.


Externally, two factors were key to the material selection of the building. Firstly, it was essential that the façade design should provide rich, sensory experience through the juxtaposition of materials, textures and finishes. Secondly, the materials were to respond to and respect the predominantly natural context of the site

Based on these factors, the overall building has been clad in red facing brick; to break up the mass of the hall and contrast the brickwork at the low level, vertical and horizontal timber panels have been introduced above the door height, the natural character of timber responding appropriately to the wooded areas surrounding the development, and feature panels in four shades of purple have been introduced.


In completing this project successfully, Howarth Litchfield director, Keith Handy, has drawn on his substantial specialist education design experience as well as his excellent working relationship with Tilbury Douglas. He said:

“We were pleased to be able to work again with Tilbury Douglas because earlier projects have allowed us to develop an efficient working relationship and our teams are both committed to collaborating effectively with all stakeholders to understand their precise requirements.

“Together, we have created a building which is a high-quality educational facility with a safe, flexible and stimulating learning environment for pupils. It will enable full integration of the academic, therapeutic and social curriculum and will be a welcoming place not only to its pupils and staff, but also to multi-agency professionals, parents, carers and potentially, the wider community.”

Tilbury Douglas has a strong track record working alongside the DfE to successfully deliver education construction projects in primary, secondary, tertiary, and higher education facilities across the UK.

Paul Ellenor, Tilbury Douglas Construction’s Regional Director for Yorkshire and the North East, said: “At Tilbury Douglas we are committed to providing first class education facilities and we are delighted to have successfully delivered the Discovery Special Academy, which will provide greatly improved specialist facilities and an enhanced learning environment for students.”

Other members of the professional team included:

  • Billinghurst George & Partners, Civil & Structural Engineering

  • Apex Acoustics

  • Desco (Leeds office) Mechanical & Electrical Engineering

  • Innovation Fire Engineering

  • Fairhurst Landscape Design


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